…Continued from the previous post.
In an imaginary sequel to Field of Dreams, a soccer-playing counterpart to Shoeless Joe Jackson might have said to Kevin Costner “Is this heaven?” To which Costner would have replied, “No, it’s Santa Barbara in December.”
Quite honestly, I don’t know how anyone manages to graduate from UC Santa Barbara. I’m not sure I could have made it across campus to a single class without being enticed off course. So I wondered how the NCAA could expect the soccer teams from Akron and Louisville to concentrate for the 90 minutes needed to determine our national champion.
Fortunately collegians are made of tougher stuff these days though, and not once do I recall anyone drifting away from play in the College Cup final to check out the surf. Even more impressive – a crowd of almost 10,000 fans suppressed the urge to wander as well.
On a December Sunday morning back then, if I were given the option of: (1) a 5-hour round trip drive to watch a soccer game; or (2) a day consisting of a couch, a remote and a full slate of NFL games, the beer and Cheesy Poofs would have won over the sunshine and fresh air in a landslide.
But on this particular December Sunday morning, it was quite the opposite. Somewhat distressingly, the NFL holds little in the way of enjoyment for me ever since about Week Three of the season, when I was mathematically eliminated from contention in the Demon Deacon Fantasy Football League.
Once I stopped fretting over whether Anquan Boldin was getting enough touches, I realized…I don’t much care about the football action that takes place increasingly sporadically among the steady onslaught of commercials. I know, I know – I’m aware that my U.S. citizenship is at stake for having said that out loud.
…Continued from the previous post.
So there I was, having traveled the treacherous terrain of the 405 freeway deep into an urban jungle of education. I was on a mission: To discover and document the differences between men’s and women’s collegiate soccer. Fortunately for me, the perfect combination of circumstances had aligned to create a pristine living laboratory.
It was that rarest of species in its natural habitat – the double-header. The women of UCLA vs. Pepperdine in the opener and the UCLA men vs. Washington in the nightcap. We explored my preliminary findings on the women’s game in yesterday’s post, so let us return to the wilds of Drake Stadium, where the men are about to take the field…
Let me start this off with a warning – don’t try this at home. I’m a trained Sports Fan working under controlled conditions. Less experienced spectators have crashed and burned attempting what I recently set out to do: Watch 180 consecutive minutes of soccer – a doubleheader. On purpose.
First I have to fess up a bit. This is the point in any discussion of soccer that I normally trot out my best soccer jokes – the ones involving No-Doze, finally finding a cure for insomnia, blah blah blah. But my heart isn’t in it this time. See, I’ve actually come to like soccer.
No, I’m not going to go all “Beautiful Game” and poetry in motion on you. And other than a World Cup game involving the U.S., it would never cross my mind to turn on the television and search for a soccer game. But in person…it’s not half-bad.
We were running late. As it always does, time had flown by during pre-game drinks with old friend June and new friend Dan and I was contentedly resigned to the fact that we were going to miss the opening kick off of the Major League Soccer game between the Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas.
But as we veered off Alaskan Way heading toward Qwest Field, there magically appeared a parking space. On the street. And since it was Sunday – free. We snagged it and headed around the corner toward the stadium – only to find that around the corner was the stadium. Which put us inside gazing at the green expanse of XBOX Pitch comfortably ahead of kick off. Dumb luck or user-friendly environment?
Once seated, I took an extended look around the stadium and noted that, save for some pockets of empty seats in the least expensive sections, the place was sold out. And sure enough, the announced attendance was 36,091 – a number technically in excess of capacity. This for a regular season game on a Sunday night, against a third-place opponent from Dallas – hardly a bitter regional rival. There’s something going on here.
And a big part of that something was the crowd.
There is a movement afoot (sorry, bad pun) in Major League Soccer to create a game environment that replicates as closely as possible what one might find in the best of Europe’s football stadiums. And in Seattle this strategy is clearly working.
In the area behind the goal, hundreds – if not thousands – of people were up and chanting in unison. Then they broke into song, followed by more chanting, which in turn led to some spirited waving of oversized Seattle Sounders banners. Then a new chant and a new song. It was impressive at first. It was even more impressive an hour later when they were still doing it.
Think about the last time that you were at a stadium or ballpark and The Wave broke out. The first time that it successfully makes its way all around the park, inevitably the crowd gives itself a huge hand for pulling off the necessary synchronization of effort. That is mere child’s play in comparison to the continual show put on by the Seattle Sounders fans. Whoever choreographs that performance has a place waiting for them on Broadway.
When the Sounders scored 14 minutes into the game, the decibel level of the resulting crowd outburst was every bit as loud as that of a touchdown in an NFL stadium holding thousands more people. To add to the spectacle, from seemingly out of nowhere, glittering green, blue and silver “confetti” in one-inch lengths cascaded down over the celebration, creating the other-worldly dynamic of being inside one of those “shake and snow” glass balls. These people know how to celebrate a score.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Sure it’s easy to make a big deal out of a goal when they happen about as often as a lunar eclipse.” And I can’t completely discount that sentiment. As previously chronicled on this site, I’m not a huge fan of soccer myself. But at that moment in time, it was ridiculously easy to get caught up in the atmosphere. Which I’ve now come to realize is half the experience of the game itself.
It was really unique to watch a sporting event with no significant stoppages in play, if for no other reason than it highlights how much wasted time there exists in games like football, baseball and basketball. When you take the natural breaks and time-outs in those three games and then tack on some artificial television timeouts, the aggregate time spent NOT watching a game is staggering in comparison with soccer.
The sports marketer in me can’t help but notice that this creates an entirely different paradigm in sponsorship sales for the Sounders and the rest of their MLS brethren. Think about it for a moment. Every other sport offers dozens of opportunities to fill dead space in the game with various forms of live or recorded messages, contests or other sponsored fan interactive bits. Not so with soccer.
They start playing and except for injuries don’t stop until halftime. Then after a fairly abbreviated halftime by other sports’ measures, they do it all over again until the game is over. Tempting as it may be to some of the more, shall we say, aggressive marketers, “this injury is brought to you by…” just doesn’t sound quite right.
One thing the Sounders have done to maximize a different revenue source is a great job of merchandising. I don’t know whether the club has taken advantage of the fan base’s natural inclination to sport the team’s colors, or whether the fan base has been influenced to do so via great marketing on the part of the team, but it’s clear that there has been a LOT of Sounders apparel purchased. And for the most part, very little of it is of the cheap silk-screened t-shirt variety.
The Sounders present four different game jerseys on the back of the game program, none of which can be inexpensive. Yet virtually everyone in the pleasantly rowdy fan club sections wore one, as did at least half of the crowd in the remainder of the stadium. Even The Bird started to drift toward one of the merchandise stands, in what she claimed to be a show of solidarity with the home team – but which I knew was really an affinity for lime green.
And then there are the scarves. Evidently, a wool scarf bearing the colors and name of one’s favorite team is beyond the requirement stage among fans of English Premier League football (soccer). The correct display of one’s scarf (stretched in the air above one’s head) is part and parcel of expected fan behavior. So as you can imagine, the Sounders have worked to ingrain that into their fans’ DNA as well. And it certainly helps that Seattle often has English Premier League equivalent weather in which to proudly wear a scarf when not displaying it.
As for the game itself…
It says a lot about a sport (although I’m not sure what specifically), when one team plays almost a third of the game with one fewer player than their opponent and it has little effect on scoring. In the 57th minute of play, Seattle player Miguel Montano drew a red card and an ejection, thus leaving the Sounders short-footed (again, sorry – who writes these things?) by one player for the last 33 minutes of the game. The impact was…well, pretty much non-existent.
Sure the flow of the game changed. Up to that point the Sounders had carried the play to FC Dallas, generating far more opportunities to score. Following the red card however, Dallas gradually took over the momentum, eventually scoring in the 87th minute to tie the game at 1-1. That momentum swing though, could just as easily be attributed to Seattle’s visible change in strategy. The Sounders spent the last third of the game seemingly playing “not to lose”. Anybody who has witnessed this tactic in any other sport (raise your hands, Syracuse hoops fans) knows that it rarely works.
And so, after a brisk two hours from the time we first entered Qwest Field, we were on our way to the car, reveling with the other 36,089 fans…in a tie? Sounders, I have a world of respect for the product that you’ve created. Great atmosphere, reasonable prices, awesome game day experience. But a tie? Perhaps you might want to put a call in to the NHL, just to inquire about what happened to the popularity of their game when they instituted the shoot-out.
Wait a minute. I just became The Ugly American again, didn’t I?
Pro Sports Team of The Year. Not just the Pro Soccer Team of The Year – no, the best franchise in all of American pro sports. According to Sports Business Journal, the Rosetta Stone of the sports biz, the Seattle Sounders currently wear the crown of “Professional Sports Team of The Year”.
The award, given every year as part of SBJ’s “Sports Business Awards”, recognizes the pro team that has set the standard for sports franchise management and marketing. Chief among the criteria used in selecting the winner of this award is how well a team does in creating a passionate “community” among its fans, and the list of past winners includes the names you would expect: the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees, the L.A. Lakers. But a pro soccer team? In its first year of existence? Playing in a non-glamorous West Coast sports market? (more…)
It was an obvious formula. The classic A + B = C…
A: Millions of American kids play youth soccer.
B: People tend to take up watching sports when they can no longer play them.
C: Kids in large numbers would grow up to become professional soccer fans.
Full disclosure time.
I feel duty-bound to immediately reveal that despite concerted previous efforts, I have never warmed up to the sport of soccer. I have a lot of respect for the worldwide popularity of the game, and for how taxing the game is to play. But I, like most Americans, have the carefully honed attention span of a tsetse fly, and have never found such a low-scoring game to make for compelling watching.